World

Lia Thomas and the slow death of women’s sports

19 March 2022

7:30 PM

19 March 2022

7:30 PM

This week, Lia Thomas became the first transgender athlete to be crowned National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion, winning the 500-yard freestyle in Georgia, US. The crowd was muted, and no wonder. Thomas spent around 20 years as a man and started competing against women in swimming only last year before becoming a national champion.

Feminism is about ending the oppression of women (by men) and not about claiming there are no differences between the sexes. One thing is clear: there are some things that we cannot compete with men in and one of those competitive sports.

Scientific papers have clearly shown that that those who have undergone male puberty retain significant advantages in power and strength, even after taking medication to suppress their testosterone levels.

As the sports scientist professor Ross Tucker wrote in 2019: ‘At any level, across any range, the top 100 (way more, actually, add a zero) in open competition between all humans would be won, without any exception, by those who benefit from testosterone’s effects on muscle, skeleton, heart, blood and fat.’ The science could not be clearer.


Imagine a girl who has trained all of her life as a swimmer. Through backbreaking hard work and obsessive dedication, she reaches the top of her game and is ranked number one in the world. Then a male competitor transitions to female, competes against her, and takes the first prize. I actually don’t care whether these individual transwomen genuinely believe they are women or if they are being opportunistic. It is still grossly unfair.

When I was newly out as a lesbian, I watched Martina Navratilova play tennis. She blazed a trail for openly lesbian and athletes in the 70s and 80s and was an important role model for all female athletes. When Martina was playing at Wimbledon as a world champion, despite her brilliance, she would have lost to a low-ranked male player. She knew that back in 1985 when she was at her peak, telling the Los Angeles Times during an interview about the famous match between Billie Jean King’s 1973 ‘mixed singles’ victory over Bobby Riggs:

‘I know I would lose to a man. Mike (Estep), my coach, still beats me. There’s no way for me to compete. The men are quicker, stronger. I take it as a compliment that people even wonder how I would do.’

Navratilova explained at the time that if she were able to pick the opponent and the surface, she might be able to beat a man ‘maybe one of ten, one out of 20 times.’ Now, almost four decades on, it looks like this might become commonplace rather than hypothetical.

We’ve all heard about the arrogance and cockiness of mediocre white men, but this is it in a nutshell. Utterly brilliant women are being beaten and overshadowed by men not good enough to beat other men.

Why would girls who had previously aimed for first place in professional competitive sports bother to reach the peak of their game if some bloke can come along and take it from them? It is more than unfair, it is worse than cheating, it is the annihilation of hope.

Martina Navratilova, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams, and Sian Massey are all important role models for girls who love sport. These women are looked up to by so many young women, whether they want to enter the sporting world or not, because they have succeeded in a male dominated profession.

Anyone involved in the professional sporting arena should take note. Whether you are a coach, an athlete, a sports journalist or merely a fan: do not keep quiet, speak out. Girls and women are in danger of losing opportunities, medals and even a chance to compete. If you are concerned about trans-identified males being left out of their sport, here is an idea of what we can do to ensure their inclusion. Their male colleagues should welcome transwomen with open arms and train and compete alongside them. Any prejudice and bigotry they display towards transwomen should be roundly condemned so they can all play nicely together. Women and girls have fought for decades to be able to compete as professionals. The burden should not be on them to include men in their teams.

We should also pass on our commiserations to Emma Weyant, who came second in the NCAA race against Thomas, and who would have won the title if women’s sports were still women-only.

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